Tag Archives: Wallace Stegner

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (review)

Wallace Stegner, an American author born in 1909, is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose (1972). He wrote for six decades – novels, short stories, biographies and essays. Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel, published in 1987 when the author was seventy-eight years old, and it’s the first of his books I’ve read.

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Let me say upfront that on reading the first 60 pages of Crossing to Safety I already knew it had the potential to be one of my favourite books of the year, and I’m sticking with this thought. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving.

The story opens in 1972. Larry Morgan, successful author and college Professor, and his wife Sally have journeyed to Battell Pond, Vermont, the home of their dear friends Sid and Charity Lang. It’s a place the Morgans have visited many times in the past, and on their return Larry recalls how he and Sally met the Langs back in the late 1930s. From here, Larry narrates their story through a series of flashbacks starting with the Morgans’ move to Madison, Wisconsin in 1937.

Larry, a bright, hard-working graduate and budding author, has gained his first role, a nine-month slot teaching English in the University of Wisconsin. He’s married to Sally, a calm, humane and loving woman whom he met at Berkeley College. Soon after their arrival in Wisconsin and desperately short of money, the Morgans meet another young couple at a similar stage in their lives – Sid Lang, another young member of the English Department, and his vibrant, beautiful and headstrong wife, Charity. The Langs are comfortably off, their warmth and generosity knows no bounds, and they quickly take Larry and Sally under their wings:

When the Langs opened their house and their hearts to us, we crept gracefully in.

Crept? Rushed. Coming from meagreness and low expectations, we felt their friendship as freezing travelers feel a dry room and a fire. Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction, and were never the same thereafter. Thought better of ourselves, thought better of the world. (pg. 37, Penguin Classics)

And so begins a deep and lifelong friendship between the two couples. These early years are full of promise for the Morgans and Langs. They share hopes, dreams and a desire to contribute; they wish to leave their individual marks on the world. Stegner captures this mood in vivid, luminous prose, which I hope to illustrate through the passage quoted below – it’s a prose style somewhat reminiscent of James’s Salter’s in Light Years. Here’s Larry as he recalls the foursome skating on Lake Montana in the presence of iceboats and a little airplane (both Sally and Charity are pregnant at the time):

I remember the gray, snow-spitting afternoon, the bite of cold wind on chin and cheeks and brows, the cold of feet cramped  into too-small borrowed skate shoes, the throttled-down whistle and mutter of the plane landing behind me, the vision of a racing ice-boat shearing away with one runner off the ice and the operator spread-eagled on the deck, and the sight of Sally and Sid leaning and stroking, and Charity gliding by, portly and exhilarated, encouraging me while I flounder flabby-ankled, and fall down, and get up, and fall down again.

But I remember even better the hour afterward in our basement, hot buttered rum and Sally’s cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven. Red faces, tingling skin, exuberant vitality, laughter, and for Sally and me the uncustomary pleasure of giving instead of taking. (pg. 60)

But as time passes, we discover that not everything in the garden is rosy. Charity is a force to be reckoned with; always organising others, always needing to control and direct key decisions. She’s desperate for Sid to succeed, to secure tenure at Wisconsin, and her heart is set on building a future for their family. While Sid would prefer to spend his time writing poetry, Charity pushes him to write academic papers, ideally articles that stand a good chance of publication, as she knows the higher-ups in the English Department value such things.

As the novel progresses, Stegner reveals further tensions in the Langs’ marriage, and these pressures are visible to Larry and Sally, too:

Eden. With, of course, its serpent. No Eden valid without serpent.

It was not a very big serpent, nor very alarming. But once we noticed it, we realised that it had been there all along, that what we had thought only the wind in the grass, or the scraping of a dry leaf, was this thing sliding discreetly out of sight. Even when we recognized it for what it was, it did not seem dangerous. It just made us look before we sat down. (pg.163)

To a certain extent, the Langs’ marriage is built on mutual dependence. Sid needs Charity to give structure to his life, to provide direction; Charity needs someone to manage. The trouble is ‘she’s never wrong’. There’s a different dependence between Larry and Sally, their relationship is less strained and they feed on each other’s love and support. Sally becomes dependent on her husband for physical care, and it’s clear that she’s the bedrock of Larry’s world. Sally and Charity also share a strong bond illustrated here by Larry’s reflections on the relationships that exist between the two couples:

Charity and I like each other well and somewhat warily. Half of our pleasure in each other’s company comes from resisting each other. But Charity and Sally are stitched together with a thousand threads of feeling and shared experience. Each is for the other that one unfailingly understanding and sympathetic fellow-creature that everybody wishes for and many never find. Sid and I are close, but they are closer. (pg. 278)

As well as showing us the value of deep friendship, Crossing to Safety explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks that confront them during their lives. There is no great melodrama here – no infidelities, no acts of malicious violence, no hatred or vengeance. Their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. In this respect, Crossing to Safety reminds me a little of John Williams’s Stoner, a remarkable book that gives us the story of a man’s seemingly less than remarkable life. Like Stoner, the final section of Crossing to Safety touches on our mortality. It raises questions as to how each of these individuals might manage if their partner were to die. How might the one left behind cope without their soulmate? Could any of us survive if faced with the same fate?

There’s a point in this novel when Charity’s son-in-law, Moe, asks Larry why he hasn’t penned the one book that’s screaming to be written, the story of Sid, Charity, Larry and Sally’s lives. Larry contemplates the following question: ‘How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?’ Well, that’s exactly what Wallace Stegner has done with Crossing to Safety, a book that captured my heart. So fully invested was I in the Morgans and the Langs, I didn’t want their story to end.

Crossing to Safety is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy.